Politicized By Trump, Teachers Threaten to Shake Up Red-State Politics

Originally published in The Intercept on April 17, 2018.
—-

THE TEACHERS STRIKES that have roiled red states across the country burst onto the national scene seemingly out of nowhere. But a closer look at the people who make up this movement reveals the distinct Trump-era nature of the uprising.

In the four states where teachers movements have erupted over the past few months — Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma — educators and community members are encountering broadly similar circumstances. In all four states, residents are reacting to years of Republican-controlled legislatures, a decline in state funding for students and teachers, an expansion of private school vouchers and charter schools, and an increasingly galvanized electorate that is motivated by all sorts of other organizing efforts that have emerged since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

And while the ranks of the educators are stocked with progressives, the strikes would have flopped had they not been joined by conservative Republican teachers who are, in significant ways, manifestations of what Washington pundits have begun to believe are purely imaginary people outside of the Beltway: folks who remain ardently conservative but are rejecting the direction the party has taken in the White House, back home or both.

“This whole effort has helped shake people from a slumber, and more people are asking, ‘Well, how is my representative voting?’” said Noah Karvelis, a public school teacher in Phoenix and a #RedforEd organizer.“People are asking if they need to rethink their votes. On our Facebook page, we even have a lot conservative teachers writing about how frustrated they are with our Republican legislators.”

Adelina Clonts, an educator in Oklahoma for more than 20 years, marched with her ten-year-old daughter from Tulsa to her state capitol, more than a hundred miles, motivated by the chance to give her students with special needs a greater shot at life.

Clonts, a Republican, said when she arrived in Oklahoma City she was disappointed to learn what her legislators had been up to. “I physically went out there to do my own research, and I found out this was basically Republicans not wanting to do their jobs, not wanting to really represent us,” she said. “It really upset me because I’m an active political party person, and it just felt like they were not hearing us.”

Clonts said she and her colleagues are prepared to vote out both Republicans and Democrats. “Everyone wants these problems fixed, and the question for our leaders is, are you trying to do something about it?”

Another Tulsa-area teacher, Cyndi Ralston, went from the sidelines to the protest and now to the campaign trail, running to take on her incumbent state representative after his viral rant against the teachers.

Were it not for Trump, it might not be happening. Kathy Hoffman, who is in her fifth year of teaching in Arizona public schools, decided to run for state superintendent after watching Betsy DeVos’s shambolic Senate confirmation hearing. “That was really the tipping point, the day it hit me [that] we really need more educators to run,” she told The Intercept. “I’m sick of people who never taught in schools leading them, and that’s also what we have in Arizona.”

Over the past year and a half, Hoffman has marched for science, for women, for DREAMers, for gun control, and, she said, for “everything.” Most recently, she’s been rallying with the newly formed #RedForEd movement, a grass-roots effort in Arizona to better fund public schools.

Edwina Howard-Jack, a high school English teacher in Upshur County, West Virginia, has spent the past 18 years in the classroom. When West Virginia teachers walked off their jobs in late February, Howard-Jack made the two-hour drive to her state Capitol on eight of the nine strike days to protest in solidarity. “The labor organizing went right along with what I was already doing,” she explained, calling the election of Trump “a wake-up call” for her. Howard-Jack marched for women in January 2017, and, soon after, decided to found an Indivisible chapter in her hometown. “There have just been so many people who were apathetic before, but now want to get involved, and the teachers strike took it all to a whole new level,” she said.

Sarah Gump, a 33-year-old teacher in Kentucky, has taught for six years in the public school system. About two years ago, she got involved with Save Our Schools Kentucky, a grass-roots effort to protest the entrance of charters into their state. (Kentucky became the 44th state to allow the formation of charter schools in 2017.) This year, as Gump has taken some time off to care for her young daughter, she’s continued to organize for public education, but has also gotten more involved with the BlueGrass Activist Alliance, a hybrid Indivisible and Together We Will chapter.

In West Virginia, educators who went on strike won a 5 percent pay raise, the first pay increase in four years. In Oklahoma, teachers won raises of about $6,000, and more in education spending, though most of their other strike demands were not met. Last week in Arizona, after more than 1,000 schools participated in a statewide “walk-in” to call for more education money, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he could give teachers a 19 percent pay increase by 2020. Ducey’s offer revealed the pressure he faced to avoid a full-blown teachers strike, but so far, educators have voiced skepticism about the governor’s proposal. And in Kentucky, where teachers have been protesting pension and education cuts, activists convinced their legislators this weekend to halt spending on new charter schools through June 2020.

AS THE FOUR teachers movements all progress at different speeds — though summer vacation looms ahead for them all — educators and activists say they are under no illusion that the battles will end with the school year. Leaders have been urging for more attention to be paid to the upcoming midterm elections. “We’ll remember in November” has become the teachers’ rallying cry and warning to politicians.

The teachers in West Virginia are happy because they won this fight, but they know it’s not over,” said Richard Ojeda, a progressive state senator running for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District seat. “If you talk to any teacher out there, they’ll tell you 5 percent is not enough, and they’re absolutely planning on removing these people in our state leadership who fought their efforts.”

“Teachers are definitely getting more engaged in the upcoming election,” said Howard-Jack. “They’re really looking at who supports unions, who supports education, and our Indivisible chapter is the same. We’re holding candidate forums, endorsing candidates, writing op-eds. I haven’t seen anything like this energy in the past.”

In a statement released Thursday, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, declared that as classes resume, educators “must turn our attention towards the election season. Instead of making our case at the steps of the Capitol, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box. The state didn’t find itself in this school funding crisis overnight. We got here by electing the wrong people to office. No more. … This fight is not over just because the school bell rings once more and our members walk back into schools. We have created a movement and there’s no stopping us now.”

Liberals across the country are hoping for a massive “blue wave” this November. In deep red states, progressives are similarly hopeful, but they are also trying to temper expectations and promote some more modest electoral objectives.

“Our goal is balance,” said Anna Langthorn, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, in a recent interview with The Oklahoman“We know that when our legislature is balanced, when our statewide offices are balanced, that we see more moderate governance and more effective governance, and so that’s what we’re aiming for. We want to break the supermajority in the House. … We want to win the governor’s race. And we want to pick up some seats in the Senate, too. The exact number may not be more than 10 in each house, but we saw that having 28 [Democratic] members made a real difference in budget negotiations, and if we can get to 34 members, that would make an even bigger difference.”

Christine Porter Marsh, a first-time candidate for office in Arizona and the state’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, says she also hopes her candidacy can bring some balance to her state’s red-leaning legislature.

“The Democrats are only two seats down from creating a tie in the Arizona Senate, and in our state, there is no tiebreaker,” she explained. “A tie loses. The seat I’m running for, against an incumbent Republican, is the most purple one in our state. If we can create a tie in the senate, not even a majority, it will be a game-changer for Arizona, because then everyone at the Capitol will have to negotiate compromises, and, to me, that is really motivating.”

Marsh, who has taught for 26 years in the classroom, says she decided to run for office after realizing a little less than a year ago that her lobbying efforts at the state Capitol just weren’t having much of an effect. “My generation of teachers, the ones who have been in it for a long time, we kind of dropped the ball,” she told The Intercept. “We were too focused on staying within the walls of our own classroom — which is so noble and wonderful and that’s what kids deserve — but so many years of doing that has created the situation in which we find ourselves, where students are directly and indirectly harmed by these bad policies.”

John Waldron, who has spent the past 20 years teaching high school social studies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ran for office for the first time in 2016. He says his race was motivated by what he felt were terrible anti-education policies coming out of his state’s legislature. Waldron lost his race, but he feels more optimistic this time around, not only because he has increased name recognition, but also because of how much more progressive organizing there’s been in his state since Trump took office.

“Our county party has been revitalized as people got back into politics after the 2016 election, and I think if there was a Democrat in the White House, the mood in Oklahoma would be very different,” he told The Intercept. “With Trump, a lot of people who would be voting are staying home out of frustration, and a lot of people who would not be so active are now being quite active.”

Waldron knows his state is conservative, but says his legislature leans even more conservative than its voters, due to special interests funding far-right candidates in uncompetitive districts. While he doesn’t really expect a blue wave that wholly flips his state’s political balance this November, he says he’s optimistic about a decade-long process where voters “move the conversation from the far right, where it is now — where politicians want to arm teachers and to get government out of everything except a woman’s uterus — back to the center.”

According to Waldron, the highly covered Oklahoma teachers strike has “given a lot of oxygen” to his political campaign, because voters, he says, are now well familiar with the demands and frustrations of educators across the state. He says he’s been offering mentorship to other first-time teacher candidates running in Oklahoma.

“I think most of us would rather stay in the classroom, but what we’ve learned from the Oklahoma experience is that teaching is a political act,” said Waldron. “I think us teachers feel ready to handle the legislature, because we deal with teen-aged kids all the time.”

In Kentucky, 40 educators have also recently filed to run for office, organizing under the banner of A Few Good Women (And Men). David Allen, former Kentucky Education Association president, told The Intercept that the majority of these educator candidates are classroom teachers, but some work in higher education, and some have retired. “It’s a statewide kind of movement, if you will,” he said. “I’ve been pleased. We’re nothing without public education. Nothing.”

Advertisements

Unionized Charter Teachers in Chicago Reject Merit Pay

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on August 17, 2015.
——

Last week, unionized teachers at three schools operated by Civitas—a subsidiary of the Chicago International Charter School network—negotiated a new contract that no longer has merit pay in it. This means 31 out of 32 unionized Chicago charter schools have now rejected merit pay. And the one unionized charter that still has it—Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy—is currently negotiating a new contract and teachers hope to remove it there as well.

Merit pay, a policy that ties teacher salaries and bonuses to student standardized test scores and evaluations, is one of the most controversial tenets of the education reform movement. The idea has been tossed around for decades, but has never really gained steam. Most teacher salaries are tied to their level of education and the number of years they’ve been teaching.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor for Washington, D.C., schools, says merit pay is needed to create the kind of culture “where excellence is rewarded.” Proponents believe that this kind of policy would incentivize high-quality teachers to enter the profession. The Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program encouraged states to implement merit pay systems within their schools.

While teacher salaries are notoriously low, many teachers have generally opposed merit pay because they do not think the system in which they’d be evaluated could ever really be objective or fair. They also worry that it could have unintended consequences, like incentivizing cheating or teaching to the test.

Brian Harris, the president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, said that when his school unionized in 2009, they first tried to improve their “really awful” merit pay scheme by negotiating more objective metrics into their evaluation system. Teachers aimed to reform merit pay, not remove it.

Over time, according to Harris, teachers began to feel increasingly frustrated with even their new-and-improved merit pay system. When I spoke to Harris in April as I was reporting my When Charters Go Union piece, he had told me, “the opposition to merit pay at my school has grown insane.” Four months later, it’s now gone.

I asked Harris if anyone in his union wanted to keep merit pay and he said he has no idea. “Nobody has been brave enough to tell me to my face that they like merit pay.” He did note that some who like the idea of paying teachers who work really hard more money, acknowledge that it is really difficult to do so fairly. “Even a lot of people who were evaluating us acknowledged that this stuff was unfair,” Harris said.

About eight months ago, their union released a document with guiding principles for contract negotiations. Beyond killing merit pay, other contract goals include advocating for smaller class sizes, increasing teacher voice, and securing protected time during the workday to grade, plan, and collaborate.

It will be interesting to see if the momentum that unionized charter school teachers have created in Chicago motivates other non-unionized charter teachers who are dissatisfied with merit pay to consider unions of their own. It will also be interesting to see if this creates any pushback from the public—a majority of public school parents say they support the idea of merit pay.

A New Course: Larry Hogan wants to change Maryland’s unique charter school laws and bring in more charters, but will kids suffer?

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on August 5th, 2015.
__________

Baltimore City Paper cover

Baltimore City Paper cover story

At the end of 2014, just weeks after Larry Hogan won a surprise victory in the gubernatorial race, the governor-elect announced that he would push to expand Maryland charter schools once in office.

“We shouldn’t be last in the nation in charter schools,” Hogan declared—referring to Maryland’s spot in the state ranking system designed by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), an advocacy organization that promotes charter schools around the country. According to NAPCS, Maryland has the nation’s “worst” charter law. The Baltimore Sun editorial board, echoing NAPCS, has said Maryland boasts one of the “weakest” charter laws in the United States.

In late February and early March, legislators in Annapolis listened to testimony related to charter reform bills that Gov. Hogan introduced in the House and Senate. Supported by the Hogan administration, a coalition of charter school operators, and national education-reform advocates, the bills met fervent opposition from teachers, principals, and community members.

“I don’t care what the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a lobbying group out of Washington, D.C., has to say about the charter school law in Maryland or where they rank Maryland relative to their own biased standards. Neither should you,” testified Megan Miskowski, a speech language pathologist at Patterson Park Public Charter School. It’s Maryland’s strong law, she argued, that explains why Maryland charters have never wrought the level of fraud and abuse so prevalent in places such as Minnesota and Louisiana—states that receive high marks from NAPCS. “Who are they to define what is best for Maryland children?” Miskowski asked. “We do not answer to them.”

The Maryland Charter School Act passed in 2003 and the first state charter schools opened their doors in 2005. A decade later roughly 18,000 students attend 47 Maryland charters—34 of them concentrated in Baltimore City. A version of the Public Charter School Improvement Act eventually passed, but it was substantially watered down from Hogan’s original proposal, and many believe he’ll push a stronger law again next year. The heart of the debate centers on competing visions for the future of public education, and whether one believes Maryland has the best charter law in the country or the worst.

The publicly funded but independently managed schools known as charters have grown significantly since the first one opened in Minnesota 23 years ago. Today more than 6,700 charters exist in 42 states and Washington, D.C. and their numbers are climbing. Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), first proposed the charter school idea in 1988; the influential union leader imagined a new kind of school that could serve as a laboratory for innovative and experimental education practices. The hope was not only to serve kids within charters who might benefit from alternative educational models, but also to carry newly discovered best practices back into traditional schools for all students to enjoy. In Shanker’s vision, charter teachers would still be unionized district employees, but certain labor regulations would be relaxed to promote greater innovation.

Maryland’s charter culture sets it apart from most other states in several ways. First, under the law all Maryland charter teachers are considered public school employees and represented under their district-wide collective bargaining unit. While this actually most closely resembles what Shanker had imagined, few states today adopt this particular model. According to the Center for Education Reform (CER), just 7 percent of all charter school teachers nationwide are unionized.

Another distinctive characteristic of Maryland charters has been a general commitment to innovate within the district, as opposed to outside of it. In other states, the law may allow for multiple charter authorizers, such as churches, universities, or nonprofits. In Maryland, however, only the local school board can authorize charter schools. “I’d say the strong desire [of Maryland charters] to work within the school district is fairly unique,” says Joceyln Kehl of the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a newly formed coalition of charter operators around the state. “Maryland is hugely pro-union and Democratic, so that’s just our context,” she adds.

Additionally, Maryland charters must comply with a greater number of state and local regulations than charter schools in other states. While detractors of Maryland’s law argue that this creates an inflexible environment for the independent schools to operate in, supporters point out that Maryland has not had any of the kinds of problems related to fraud, abuse, and mismanagement that charter schools in states with decreased regulation have had. “It is true that Maryland charter school law provides more oversight than many other states,” testified Deborah Apple, a charter school teacher at the Baltimore-based Wolfe Street Academy. “It is also true, however, that our charter school system is more effective than most.”

A stronger level of oversight, a close relationship with the school district, and unionized charter teachers illustrate the uniqueness of Old Line State charters. The vast majority of schools are considered “mom and pop” charters, meaning parents or former local educators founded them, as opposed to some of the larger national charter management organizations (CMOs) that have developed presences in other cities. According to an Abell Foundation report released this year, many high-performing CMOs have expressed reticence or disinterest in coming to Maryland given the conditions in which they’d have to operate. While the Maryland charter law has facilitated the growth of strong schools with little to no fiscal and academic issues, the question is whether such growth is sufficient, and whether the state’s law should change in order to entice more CMOs to expand into Maryland.

Baltimore’s 34 charter schools educate 13,000 of the district’s 84,000 students. Bobbi Macdonald, co- founder of the City Neighbors Charter School, is one of Charm City’s veteran operators. City Neighbors was one of the first charters to open up in 2005, and since then Macdonald has opened two more schools. Reflecting on the evolving dynamics between Baltimore charter operators and the district, Macdonald describes years of intentional relationship building. “I don’t believe that school systems are made out of steel, they’re made out of people,” she says.

In 2004, after the charter law passed and before the first schools opened, Baltimore’s new charter operators formed a coalition to organize and advocate for their collective interests. This coalition grew increasingly formalized as the years went on. “The work of the coalition became really focused on defending our autonomy and the rights of children in charter schools,” says Macdonald, who served as the coalition’s co-chair for the first six years.

Many charter operators spoke favorably, even nostalgically, of Dr. Andrés Alonso’s six-year tenure as city superintendent, which ended at the end of 2012-2013 academic year. “Dr. Alonso had a clear vision of wanting to provide a portfolio of school options for families, and to create opportunities for innovation and then replicate those practices,” says Allison Shecter, the founder of the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, one of the city’s most popular charters. “I think when Dr. Alonso was here we had a really strong relationship and participated in a lot of ways on many different levels,” says Macdonald.

Since Alonso’s departure, the relationship between charter operators and the district has grown more strained. “I’d say it’s a challenging relationship. It’s not a partnership unfortunately,” Shecter says. “We’d like it to be a partnership but in order for it to be a partnership there needs to be consistent and ongoing communication back and forth around policies that may impact charters.” Many operators say they feel the district is neither accountable nor transparent, which fuels growing levels of distrust.

One issue charter operators repeatedly raise is that they believe the district short-changes them when it comes to per-pupil funding. Under state law, the district must provide “commensurate” funding between traditional schools and charters. Currently, the district allocates $7,300 per traditional school student, and $9,400 per charter student—which is supposed to take into account that Maryland charters have to pay for the cost of their facilities, programming, salaries, and other school-level costs, which the district pays for in traditional schools. However, the formula that the district uses to come up with these amounts is unclear, and operators are convinced that what they’re getting is too low. Charter operators believe that they should be getting closer to $14,000 per pupil. Debates around these dollar amounts grow very charged.

Not everyone at charters agrees the district is shirking its funding responsibilities. “Charters still receive more per pupil, even after those extra costs are covered,” says Matthew Hornbeck, the principal at Hampstead Hill Academy, a charter located just south of Patterson Park. “Everyone, with the exception of some of the charter operators, knows that.” Hornbeck, who has served as his school’s principal for 12 years, has been outspoken about what he sees as a district funding formula that unfairly favors charters.

“I was a charter operator and I absolutely knew we were getting more than traditional public schools,” adds Helen Atkinson, the executive director of Teachers’ Democracy Project, a local organization that helps teachers engage in public policy and develop more social justice curricula.

Jon McGill, the director of academic affairs for the Baltimore Curriculum Project, the city’s largest charter operator, describes the relationship between charters and the school district headquarters on North Avenue as “overall harmonious” but says he does wish the district would be more transparent about how about how exactly it spends its slice of per-pupil funding. He thinks charters “lose the PR game” because the public sees them as always asking for more money. One reason the funding issues get so heated, McGill suggests, is because some operators have taken huge personal risks to open charter schools, and feel they need more reassurance that the district truly supports their efforts. “Some people have 30-year mortgages to worry about,” he says.

While for the past decade the story of Baltimore charters has mostly been an intra-district struggle, Gov. Hogan’s rise to power signified a turning point for the Maryland school-choice movement.

The legislation Hogan introduced would have dramatically changed the charter law passed in 2003. His proposals included provisions to exempt charter school employees from the district bargaining unit, as well as from many state and local requirements such as teacher certification. Hogan’s bill would have enabled charter schools to compete against traditional schools for state public construction money, and the bill would have required districts to explicitly define “commensurate funding” to mean that charters should get 98 percent of the per-pupil amount that traditional public school students receive, leaving 2 percent left over for district administrative expenditures.

“It did take us by surprise,” says Kehl. “As a charter sector, we were not expecting legislation this year, and we’re grateful that Governor Hogan finally wanted to cast an eye on the charter sector.” While charter operators around the state met with legislators and held school meetings to discuss why they supported Hogan’s bill, Kehl acknowledges that their advocacy “wasn’t as robust an effort had we been really prepared for it.”

Once news of Hogan’s charter bill went public, Maryland charter teachers began to organize together in new ways. In Baltimore, teachers convened and decided to form the Baltimore Charter School Teacher Coalition. Educators broke up into committees to strategize and implement an organized political response to the bill.

Corey Gaber, a sixth-grade literacy teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School who was active in the coalition, says part of the reason they formed their group was because they were dissatisfied with the pace and quality of the Baltimore Teachers Union’s (BTU) response. “We felt like we needed to reach out and inform teachers about what was going on and we didn’t feel like the union was doing it effectively,” he says. Gaber acknowledges that among Baltimore charter teachers there exists a “constant contradiction of feelings”—in some ways they are dissatisfied with the current union leadership, but on the other hand, teachers are proud to be being unionized district employees and deeply value their protections. With fellow charter teacher Kristine Sieloff, Gaber wrote an Op-Alt for City Paper (“The injustice of a two-tiered education system in Baltimore City,” March 31) and Gaber created and helped to circulate a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures from both charter and traditional public school teachers.

“The interests of traditional teachers in charters and public are exactly the same right now,” says McGill, who thinks the proposed bill would have created deep divisions between Baltimore educators.

The BTU helped circulate another petition for charter teachers and charter educational support personnel, roughly 740 people in total, and more than 90 percent of eligible petitioners signed. “I spoke with every teacher I know, teachers were universally against [the legislation],” Gaber says.

In addition to local educators who worried about losing their collective bargaining rights and allowing non-certified teachers to work with kids, other leaders pushed back against what they saw as a deeply inequitable funding structure embedded into Hogan’s legislation.

“Charter advocates rely on the premise that as money flows from a regular school to a charter school, the costs of the regular school go down proportionately. Sounds good; it’s just not true,” wrote David W. Hornbeck in a Baltimore Sun op-ed published in February. Hornbeck “recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools” while serving as Philadelphia’s superintendent of schools from 1994 to 2000, and he now believes he made a grave mistake. Hornbeck, who also served as superintendent of Maryland schools from 1976 to 1988 (and is the father of Hampstead Hill principal Matt Hornbeck), pointed out that Pennsylvania’s charter law is ranked much higher than Maryland’s and “yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.”

Bebe Verdery, the director of the Maryland ACLU Education Reform Project, also submitted testimony against the bill, arguing that the proposed funding formula would result in severe cuts to traditional schools. “Simply put, students without any special needs would get funding the state formula intended for others,” she said. Verdery also objected to a provision that would have allowed public capital repair funds to go toward private buildings that housed charter schools, saying, “this would further strain an already insufficient pool of state resources for addressing the state’s $15 billion school repair and construction backlog.”

Hogan’s legislation said “commensurate funding” should mean that charters get 98 percent of what traditional public schools receive because a 2005 State Board of Education ruling determined that districts needed only 2 percent of per-pupil funding to cover central administrative costs. But when the Department of Legislative Services (DLS) surveyed local school systems later on, it found that administrative expenditures make up closer to 10-14 percent of per-pupil spending. Critics argued that if 98 percent were legally guaranteed for charters, but necessary administrative work still had to be done, then money would be taken from traditional public school students, potentially leading to increased class sizes, special educators with enormous case loads, or cuts to after- school programming, gym, and art.

Local charter operators insisted that their goal was not to bankrupt the district, but simply to fight for parity. “We believe strongly that we can achieve this without harming funding for other schools,” testified Ed Rutkowski, the executive director of Patterson Park Public Charter School.

The watered-­down bill that Hogan ultimately signed was a grassroots victory for some, and a major disappointment for others. The Center for Education Reform, which hired several lobbyists to push for the bill’s passage, was so dismayed with the final result that it actually urged the governor to veto it, insisting that this would be a step back for Maryland school choice, not one forward.

The final bill ended up removing mostly all provisions that had generated controversy. It grants greater autonomy to charters that have demonstrated five years of success, and it provides for increased flexibility with student enrollment. The bill also authorizes the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and the DLS to complete a study by the end of October 2016 to determine what a more appropriate figure should be for districts when it comes to commensurate funding.

“The law that passed was more subtle and more evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” said Hampstead Hill’s Hornbeck. “It did not trash a good law, like the governor’s proposal tried to do.”

Given that the governor still had support from MarylandCAN, a pro-charter advocacy organization that helped to craft the original legislation, Hogan went ahead and signed the bill into law. It’s an imperfect bill, but it creates “the pathway” to expand charters and it grants more flexibility to existing ones, said Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Hogan’s special adviser on charter schools.

“As the state with the most restrictive charter law in the country, these small steps forward, while welcomed, are not enough,” said Jason Botel, the executive director of MarylandCAN, in a statement. “They must be the start, not the end, of our work to dramatically reform charter school policy in our state.”

Kara Kerwin, the president of CER, believes MarylandCAN is mistaken to think that they can just go back and improve on the new law later. She points out that the new law clarifies that only the local district board—not the Maryland State Board of Education—can authorize new charters, and that online charter schools are now explicitly prohibited from operating within Maryland.

In an interview, Kerwin describes online charters as “one of the biggest innovations right now that’s helping so many students who aren’t brick and mortar types.” However, several studies have found that online charter schools tend to provide a lower-quality education than traditional schools, and a 2011 New York Times investigation found that K12 Inc., one of the nation’s largest online charter school operators, “tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”

Most people interviewed for this story do not believe the new law will lead to an expansion of Maryland charter schools, one of Hogan’s top policy priorities. “The final bill that passed was very limited in scope, it doesn’t have a whole lot of changes,” Macdonald says. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”

So what does this all mean for the future of Maryland charters?

“I have no doubt that this was round one and [the operators] are going to try again as long as Hogan’s governor,” Gaber says. “We’re going to keep fighting. We started this teacher coalition knowing that this is a long-term fight and we need to be organized and ready before the next time comes.”

Kehl thinks that the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which just officially emerged as a statewide group in July, will focus on building a more unified policy voice and cultivating a stronger presence in Annapolis. “Our charter sector has matured,” she says. “If you believe that schools shouldn’t be one size all, then you have to create a system that supports that. I don’t see how you can make change if you keep everything the same.”

Whether new legislation will be introduced next year is an open question. Kerwin of CER thinks such an effort would be futile, even if they tried. Todd Reynolds, the political coordinator for Maryland’s American Federation of Teachers, says some legislators might decide it makes sense to wait until after the new MSDE/DLS study is completed.

While the emerging landscape appears fraught with tensions between the district and the charter sector, there still remains a possibility that Maryland charters will chart a different sort of future than that of other states.

Even though Macdonald of the City Neighbors Charter School supported Hogan’s legislation, she acknowledges that some parts made her feel ambivalent. While she feels strongly that Maryland charters need more autonomy and bureaucratic relief, she also wants to preserve collective bargaining rights for charter teachers. “I feel like Maryland is so unique in our stance,” she says. “I haven’t yet seen the bill I would really fight for.”

In a few months, on Oct. 22, the Teachers’ Democracy Project will be hosting a big meeting between teachers, charter operators, politicians, union officials, and school board members to try and figure out a way forward that doesn’t require another heated legislative fight. Atkinson believes the current law is good, but that Baltimore teachers—charter and non-charter alike—should be organizing for more money for all schools. “We’re going to try to hold an open conversation about what people’s concerns are,” said Atkinson. “The operators are reasonable, they’re not right-wing, they’re not trying to get charters to take over the world. Their main frustrations are with the union contract and some of the ways the district controls things.”

McGill thinks that a more collaborative push for charter reform from the district, teachers, and charter operators “would be the ideal” solution but worries things are growing too polarized for that to materialize. Gaber, however, says that the Baltimore Charter School Teacher Coalition has also discussed how they want to stand for something, and not just against reform. “I think it would be a good idea for us to be more proactive,” adds Reynolds of the AFT. “We should get back to what charters were intended to in terms of offering innovation that can then be brought into traditional schools.”

The question of whether some of the larger CMOs would be interested in setting up schools in Maryland remains uncertain. Kehl says it’s important to help facilitate more attractive operating conditions because “there’s a certain point where you tap out your local leadership” and if you “can’t attract national talent” into Maryland, then you’ve just closed the door on quality options for kids.

Others see luring CMOs as a less urgent priority, especially given how the state increasingly underfunds public education. In his latest budget, Hogan increased state education funding by 0.4 percent, but cut Baltimore City’s funding by 3.3 percent. Attracting those CMOs—which would likely be into Baltimore—might mean redirecting funds toward charter facility expenses or pushing harder to restrict collective bargaining. Maryland might also experience some of the financial strain that rapid charter growth in other states has placed on traditional schools.

Testifying last spring, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools Dr. Gregory E. Thorton said Hogan’s bill would work “to the benefit of large out-of-state charter organizations—to the detriment of Maryland’s most vulnerable student populations.”

While the Baltimore City School District might need to work harder to collaborate with its local charter sector, and the teacher unions may need to re-examine some provisions within their contracts, it’s not yet clear that Maryland’s unique charter culture is headed out the door.

State law currently allows charters to negotiate waivers and exemptions from certain aspects of the district-wide collective bargaining unit. That’s how Baltimore’s KIPP charter school was able to extend its school week; KIPP had to agree to pay its staff more money for the increased number of working hours. Theoretically charter operators could sit down with union leaders to discuss some of their most pressing concerns around staffing, innovation, and autonomy. “It’s not meant to be a one-size-fits-all situation,” says Reynolds. “You can sit down with the union and negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding. We have done that, and I think that’ll continue.”

“I think it would be amazing to sit down with the union and really roll up our sleeves,” says Macdonald. “I do think it’s really important for teachers to be unionized, to collectively bargain, and to get paid well, but I also think if we want to innovate and serve the children of Baltimore, we really have to allow [for] some more flexibility.”

NEA Members Announce They Will Fight Institutional Racism. Do They Mean It?

Originally published on the American Prospect Tapped blog on July 9, 2015.
——

At the National Education Association’s recently concluded annual meeting—a gathering where the country’s largest labor union sets its policy priorities for the coming year—delegates passed several historic measures that committed the union to fighting institutional racism.

Perhaps the most notable measure was New Business Item B, which passed unanimously. It opened with language stating that the NEA “acknowledge[s] the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” Allocating $277,000 to the effort, the union pledged to, among other things, focus on providing support for programs that can “end the school to prison pipeline” and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.” While this funding will last for one year, the measure includes a clause that says some money should go toward “researching implications for NEA’s Strategic Plan and Budget for 2016-2018,” which suggests that the union would consider devoting more resources to anti-racist efforts in the future.

EduColor—a relatively new movement to elevate public school advocates of color on issues of equity and justice—released a statement following the NEA’s conference. While EduColor’s members applauded the steps taken by the union to confront institutional racism, they pointed out that “it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color.” With school segregation, inequitable school funding, and shortages of black and brown teachers, EduColor said, “Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions.” Making anti-racist work compulsory for their union, they argue, must “sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.”

Jose Vilson, the founder of EduColor, writing on his blog, said he hopes the NEA is committed to fighting racism because its members truly believe in social justice, and not because its members are afraid of being labeled as racists if they don’t. Vilson noted that the NEA introduced and passed bills that he “wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months ago”—a testament to the hard and difficult conversations taking place in their union and across the country—but that still, “we have to recognize that many of our colleagues aren’t ready to hear that they may be part of the problem, too.”

The questions that have come to the forefront of education policy debates over the past year are not about to disappear, or be resolved, anytime soon. The NEA joins the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a much longer history of tackling racial justice issues, in reckoning with how to fight politically for greater equity and opportunity both within and outside of the school building. While the two unions seem to recognize that education is greatly impacted by economic inequality, incarceration, and racism, it will no doubt take activist educators to keep their organizations’ priorities focused on results.

The Uphill Battle of Unionizing a Philly Charter School

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 4th, 2015.
—————
O
n April 30th, faculty at North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted 104-38 in favor of forming a union, an NLRB election that Olney’s charter operator, ASPIRA, has since announced they’re challenging. Olney’s union campaign is only the latest in a small but rapidly growing wave of charter union drives nationwide. But few efforts have been as contentious, or as revealing, as this one. Ever since the campaign began three years ago, ASPIRA has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into an elaborate union-busting effort, even as the beleaguered district it’s funded by struggles with massive debt. Unionizing Olney also threatens to shine light on ASPIRA’s questionable finances, at a time when authorities at the state and district level have failed to act. More broadly, the union drive in Philadelphia reveals how charter management organizations can use lax regulation to dodge financial accountability.

ASPIRA took over Olney, along with John B. Stetson Middle School in 2011 through Philadelphia’s “renaissance” school turnaround project, whereby charter operators are given the opportunity to improve the academic performance of struggling district schools. As part of the renaissance conversion, remaining educators at Olney and Stetson lost their union membership.

It wasn’t easy for Olney staff to reach their April 30th election; for the past three years they have dealt with an administration intent on suppressing union organizing efforts. Tactics have included threatening teachers with layoffs and cuts to benefits, putting anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, and instating new discipline policies, which included barring employees from criticizing ASPIRA on social media. The NLRB sided with educators in three of the four unfair labor practice complaints they filed in response to these measures.

Other tactics that have garnered criticism, including from Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez—who once served as ASPIRA’s Executive Director—relate to services ASPIRA has employed, with public dollars, to fight the union effort. In August 2014, Philadelphia City Paper reported that ASPIRA paid a law firm with experience in fighting unionization efforts at least $72,163. This past April, the chair of the Olney school board signed a contract with consultants to lead self-described “union avoidance” meetings for Olney staff, as well as to help ASPIRA design and implement a campaign to fight unionization. The cost for these consultants was $25,000 and the contract stipulated that that figure “does not include any time that may be spent in responding or defending any charges filed by the union at the NLRB.”

Stetson educators recently launched their own organizing drive, and ASPIRA is sending consultants and lawyers there, too. Moreover, ASPIRA sent their consultants to lead a mandatory meeting at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, another one of ASPIRA’s five charters, to reportedly “pre-empt an organizing effort.”

The budget problems plaguing Philadelphia public schools have forced the district to close dozens of schools, to lay off thousands of workers, to reduce transportation services, and more. How then, do we get to a point where charters are able to spend such significant sums of public dollars to fight union efforts? Who, if anyone, gets to have a say?

Are Charter Employees Public or Private?

Charters, which have been around for a quarter century, are publicly funded but independently managed schools. In education circles there’s a fierce debate over whether these schools are truly “public”—charter proponents insist that they are, while others see charters as a means to privatize education.

Aside from whether charter schools are public or private, another question is whether charter school employees are public or private—important distinctions not only for union formation but also for labor rights more broadly. The courts have taken the position that there is no clear-cut answer for charter employees, and each situation must be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on individual state laws and regulations, as well as the composition of each charter organization. But in one significant case from 2012, the NLRB ruled that educators at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy Charter School (CMSA) were private employees mainly because no government entity has the authority to appoint or remove CMSA board members, and no board members are directly accountable to public officials. In 2013, citing the CMSA ruling, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board effectively disclaimed jurisdiction over charter labor disputes in the state, concluding that such matters should be dealt with at the NLRB.

Which brings us back to Olney and Stetson. Despite previously stating that it would respect the results of an NLRB election, ASPIRA now claims Olney teachers are in fact public employees, and thus not subject to the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Stetson educators also recently filed for their own union election and ASPIRA challenged them, too. While the NLRB held a regional hearing and determined that Stetson educators are in fact covered under the NLRB, no determination has yet been made for Olney educators. However, since the legal arguments are the same for both renaissance schools, one can assume that the NLRB will ultimately uphold jurisdiction.

Many view ASPIRA’s NLRB challenge as a stalling tactic, but their action is not illegal. Wilma Liebman, a former chairman of the NLRB, told me that jurisdiction challenges are permitted at any stage of the election process. But considering that ASPIRA has not dropped their Olney challenge despite losing their Stetson one, many wonder how far ASPIRA will go before they agree to collectively bargain, and how expensive the legal bills are going to be.

In theory, if the regional NLRB rules in favor of Olney educators, ASPIRA could appeal to the national NLRB board in Washington, D.C. If ASPIRA loses all possible appeals, and they still refuse to bargain, then the NLRB will have to take them to District Court. Such cases are extremely expensive. “If they still refuse to bargain past a District Court ruling, then they’d be found in contempt,” said Liebman.

Other Questionable ASPIRA Expenditures

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances.

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances. Over the past several years, evidence suggests that ASPIRA has engaged in other instances of questionable financial behavior. The Philadelphia Daily News found that ASPIRA has borrowed nearly $3.5 million from its charter schools, though the public doesn’t know where that money went. Journalists also found that school staff used debit cards without providing receipts, and that bank loans were signed where one charter school would guarantee the debt of another. Under the law, each charter is supposed to function as an independent entity.

Lauren Thum of the Philadelphia School District’s Charter Office told Newsworks that the district couldn’t confirm whether ASPIRA is spending its charter school dollars in the schools themselves, or whether money is being siphoned off for other things. Part of the complication stems from the fact that although each of ASPIRA’s five charters is organized as an independent nonprofit, they all share the same board of trustees through their parent organization, ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. And although the school district worries that ASPIRA charters may be improperly shuffling money around, they have thus far been denied access to the parent organization’s financial records. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entitles, and money flowing throughout them,” Thum said. In the meantime, ASPIRA continues to deny any financial wrongdoing. ASPIRA also declined to be interviewed and several school board members did not return requests for comment.

In 2010, the Philadelphia City Controller released a report criticizing a practice common amongst Philly charters whereby the schools use public funds to pay rent to parent organizations or subsidiaries; this is what ASPIRA does with ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. “Properties that are being paid for with taxpayer funds are being either transferred [to] or controlled by nonprofits with no accountability to the school district or taxpayers,” the report concluded. However, five years later, the practice continues.

Under the law, unions are entitled to see the financial information that pertains to their bargaining unit. (This includes things like health insurance costs, salaries, etc.) And if during negotiations management shoots down a union’s proposal by claiming they have an inability to pay, then the union is legally entitled to access more financial information to verify management’s claim. “In my opinion, I think the real issue is ASPIRA doesn’t want a union poking around in their finances,” a Philadelphia School District official told me. “Having a union gives them the right to do that in order to bargain in good faith, and [ASPIRA] doesn’t want anyone looking at anything.”

And so far, no one really has. As millions of dollars move around between the charter schools, the parent organization, and ASPIRA’s two property-management entities, the school district’s ability to challenge ASPIRA’s financial behavior remains unclear. In January, the district sent a letter to ASPIRA outlining 17 conditions the nonprofit would need to meet if they want to have their Stetson charter renewed. Conditions include reorganizing Stetson’s school board so that the parent organization doesn’t directly control it and getting a treasurer with a background in finances and audits.

Since then, ASPIRA has complied with some of the district’s requests, and has challenged others. Notably, they have so far refused to provide access to relevant financial information of its parent organization, though conversations between ASPIRA and the district are still ongoing.

“Nobody has enough power or enough money to really stay on top of things, so it becomes really easy for things to end up in a big mess,” said Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University Law School professor who studies Pennsylvania charter law. “I frankly don’t think the state legislature thought ahead about the financial ramifications in any serious way. It’s [as] if everyone thought ‘oh this is a great idea, oh there will be cool new schools.’”

A Need for Greater Oversight

ASPIRA’s accountability problem is similar at the district level. “We just don’t have time right now to oversee [all that] we’re supposed to oversee,” the Philadelphia district official told me, who added that they need far more resources and manpower to do comprehensive charter investigations. And, as the situation with ASPIRA suggests, perhaps school districts need to be granted explicitly clearer legal authority to track where charter dollars go. Though charters are premised on a model of increased accountability, the public, as it stands, is unable to hold these schools accountable.

Beyond tracking the unclear money, what about the costs that are clear, like the lawyers and consultants? When I asked David Lapp, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center whether the school district could protest ASPIRA spending public dollars to fight a union he said it would be unusual, though not necessarily illegal. “Generally speaking, the charter authorizer, which in Pennsylvania is the school district, has the general duty to oversee that charter schools are following the law,” he said. “I’ve never seen a school district give any sort of opinion to a charter school about labor law issues, but whether they could seems to be an open question.”

Regardless, as ASPIRA will find, there’s only so long that an employer can delay negotiating with a staff that’s committed to forming a union.